A project in north-west England to capture carbon dioxide from a gas plant and use it to make sodium bicarbonate for pharmaceuticals is the kind of “essential” scheme Britain needs if it wants to end its contribution to global warming, Chris Skidmore, UK clean growth minister, said when he visited the site last week.
Tata Chemicals Europe’s scheme in Cheshire will capture 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from 2021, making it the biggest scheme of its kind in the country.
But on a global scale it is very small and experts say initiatives will have to be much more ambitious if the UK is to hit its newly adopted net zero emissions target by 2050.
The Committee on Climate Change, a UK government advisory body, said there were 43 large projects operating or under development elsewhere and that deployment of carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) technology must progress with “far greater urgency”. Large projects typically capture at least 1m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
Equally, MPs on the Commons business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) select committee have criticised Britain’s “turbulent” history and “slow progress” in deploying the technology.
The government last year produced an action plan to deliver the first large-scale CCUS facility in the UK from the mid-2020s, which will give it the option to employ the technology “at scale” during the 2030s.
Critics say this is not ambitious enough. The MPs committee recommended “at least” three large projects are developed by 2025.
CCUS typically involves removing carbon dioxide from a power plant or factory and either using it, for example to make chemicals or fizzy drinks, or storing it in depleted oil and gasfields.
Climate experts say the adoption of CCUS will be crucial to decarbonise key sectors of the economy, including heavy industries that have little other option to deal with their emissions, such as power plants and cement and steel manufacturing. It could also play a central role in the manufacture of hydrogen to replace natural gas to heat buildings and in greenhouse gas removal — a process that permanently removes carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.
Energy companies such as ScottishPower, Eon, Royal Dutch Shell and Drax have sought to build full-scale carbon capture and storage projects in the UK since the mid-2000s but two government subsidy biding competitions, in 2007 and 2012, were later cancelled over cost concerns.
The technology has been used elsewhere for decades. Sleipner, the world’s first offshore carbon capture and storage plant, was built 23 years ago by the Norwegian energy giant Equinor and still catches and stores about 1m tonnes of C02 a year from natural gas.
Drax’s previous attempt to build a large carbon capture and storage system next to its biomass and coal plant in Yorkshire, which was abandoned in 2015, involved one joint venture owning the entire process — from catching the CO2, to transporting and storing it.
Will Gardiner, Drax’s chief executive, said that this time separate specialist companies working together would each concentrate on a different part of the process. “There are different market participants who are better suited to playing in those spaces so I think there is real logic to splitting it that way,” he said.
Companies in charge of carbon transportation and storage can receive it from a number of sources in an area, not just one factory or power plant, generating different sources of income. Businesses that need a solution for their emissions would benefit from shared infrastructure, lowering costs.
Five locations where multiple companies would benefit from a large scale CCUS facility have been identified in industrial areas such as Teesside, Humberside and Merseyside.
“In the past we may have been focusing on one particular use, maybe decarbonising power or decarbonising industry,” said Sinead Lynch, UK country chair at Royal Dutch Shell, which is supporting the development of a CCUS facility in Teesside, north-east England. “[Now] it’s much more of a cross-cutting systems solution.”
Significant hurdles remain though, not least funding. Ministers have promised a consultation this year on possible models. These could include regulated asset base (RAB) financing, used for other big infrastructure projects such as the Thames “supersewer”, and “contracts for difference” subsidies that are offered to renewable technologies such as offshore wind.
Ultimately, though, ministers will have to accept that the first projects will need sizeable support in the same way that other early clean technologies required backing, Mr Gardiner said, without being specific about amounts. “It is not going to be inexpensive.”
Governments can also encourage companies to fund CCUS and lessen the burden on the taxpayer by generating markets for zero carbon products, say academics. One example would be creating a so-called procurement mandate for public bodies involved in infrastructure projects to buy zero carbon steel or cement from plants with CCUS, said Stuart Haszeldine, of Edinburgh university’s geosciences department.
“Those [industrial] companies selling into that low carbon market will charge a bit more [because of the costs of installing CCUS] but it has started that market off by giving those companies a destination where they could sell their products,” said Mr Haszeldine, adding that the additional price to the end user would be low as a proportion of overall construction costs.
Creating markets is important as at the moment “nobody wants to pay for climate”, said Nils Røkke, an expert in CCUS at Sintef Energy, Scandinavia’s largest research and development institute. “People pay for power production, thus you see wind farms. Carbon capture and storage is just providing a good for the climate,” said Mr Røkke.